The European Commission presented ministers on Monday with a 10-point plan for immediate action to ease the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean,
including strengthening search and rescue operations, German
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said.
The proposals, set out at a crisis meeting of EU foreign and interior ministers in Luxembourg, included a doubling of the financing and number of ships available to the EU’s Triton border protection operation, he said.
Earlier Monday, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc has a “moral duty to concentrate our responsibility as Europeans to prevent these kinds of tragedies from happening again and again.”
Italian rescuers continued to search early Monday for survivors in what could be the Mediterranean’s deadliest known tragedy, raising pressure anew on the European Union to meet demands for decisive action on the growing crisis.
700 feared dead
As many as 700 migrants were feared dead early Monday after their 20-meter-long boat capsized in the Mediterranean as a large merchant ship approached. The incident occurred about 113 kilometers or 70 miles from the Libyan coast and south of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.
If the death toll is confirmed, it will bring to more than 1,500 the total number of people who have died so far this year seeking to reach Europe.
Eighteen ships were involved in the rescue effort, but only 28 survivors and 24 bodies had been pulled from the water by nightfall, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said. Rescuers worked into the night to find possible survivors, Reuters reported.
The Maltese army said an Italian coast guard ship brought victims’ bodies to Malta on Monday. The coast guard ship then continued to Sicily with the survivors, according to The Associated Press.
After an emergency strategy session Sunday with his top ministers, Renzi said search-and-rescue missions alone are not sufficient enough to save lives.
Renzi called for an international effort to stop human trafficking and to stop migrant boats from leaving Libya. “Let me say that we are doing everything we can to find the traffickers responsible for this deadly crossing,” he said.
European Council President Donald Tusk said he was considering calling a special meeting of EU leaders, a summit that Renzi had called for earlier.
Late Sunday, Renzi said: “Italy is asking for an extraordinary European Council meeting to be held as soon as possible, because it is unthinkable that, faced with tragedies such as the ones we are experiencing, there is not the same feeling of closeness and solidarity and sharing that Europe has shown in other events.”
Hundreds aboard ship
The Italian Coast Guard said the vessel that capsized this weekend had capacity for “hundreds” of people. Survivors have told authorities that anywhere from 700 to 950 people were onboard.
Rescue workers said most of the missing apparently were trapped in the vessel at the bottom of the sea.
The relatively small number of survivors and bodies make more sense if hundreds of people were locked in the hold, because with so much weight down below, “surely the boat would have sunk,” Italian Border Police General Antonino Iraso told the AP. The force has deployed boats in the operation.
Iraso said the sea there is too deep for divers, suggesting that the final toll may never be known. The sea off Libya runs as deep as 5 kilometers (3 miles) or more.
Demands for action
Sunday’s tragedy brought rising demands for decisive action, with authorities from France, Spain, Germany and Britain joining calls for a unified response.
French President Francois Hollande said the EU had to do more, telling Canal+ television that rescue-and-disaster prevention efforts needed “more boats, more over flights and a much more intense battle against people trafficking.”
“More EU countries must take responsibility for the refugee situation,” said Morgan Johansson, Sweden’s minister for justice and migration. He called for expanding the EU’s Triton border protection program, which recently replaced a broader search-and-rescue mission run by Italy.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told the French news agency AFP: “We Europeans risk damaging our credibility if we are not able to prevent these tragic situations which are happening every day.”
In a televised address, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras urged the European Union to face the crisis head on. “The Mediterranean must stop being a graveyard sea, and southern European countries a storage [for] human souls,” he said.
Pope adds his voice to appeals
In his weekly address in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis called on the international community to prevent more migrant disasters.
“They are men and women like us,” the pontiff said. “Brothers pursuing a better life, hungry, persecuted, hurt, exploited, victims of war…. I invite you to pray in silence, all together, for these brothers and sisters.”
Francis also called for much greater international involvement in the burgeoning crisis.
The latest disaster comes after a week in which two other migrant shipwrecks left an estimated 450 people dead.
Analysts said they expect human trafficking in the Mediterranean to worsen in the coming months as warming weather and the promise of European stability and prosperity lure desperate refugees from Africa and beyond.